Increases in air, permafrost, and sea surface temperature, loss of sea ice, the potential for increased wave energy, and higher river discharge may all be interacting to escalate erosion of arctic coastal lowland landscapes. Here we use airborne light detection and ranging (LiDAR) data acquired in 2006 and 2010 to detect landscape change in a 100 km2 study area on the Beaufort Sea coastal plain of northern Alaska. We detected statistically significant change (99% confidence interval), defined as contiguous areas (>10 m2) that had changed in height by at least 0.55 m, in 0.3% of the study region. Erosional features indicative of ice-rich permafrost degradation were associated with ice-bonded coastal, river, and lake bluffs, frost mounds, ice wedges, and thermo-erosional gullies. These features accounted for about half of the area where vertical change was detected. Inferred thermo-denudation and thermo-abrasion of coastal and river bluffs likely accounted for the dominant permafrost-related degradational processes with respect to area (42%) and volume (51%). More than 300 thermokarst pits significantly subsided during the study period, likely as a result of storm surge flooding of low-lying tundra (<1.4 m asl) as well as the lasting impact of warm summers in the late-1980s and mid-1990s. Our results indicate that repeat airborne LiDAR can be used to detect landscape change in arctic coastal lowland regions at large spatial scales over sub-decadal time periods.
Additional publication details
Quantifying landscape change in an arctic coastal lowland using repeat airborne LiDAR